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String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op. 110

December 16, 2018: Emerson Quartet

The Eighth is probably the best known of Shostakovich’s string quartets because of its compact drama, its quotations from his own earlier works, and its pervasive use of the motto D.SCH, drawn from the initials of his first and last names. (He used Dimitri Schostakowitsch, the German transliteration, which in German musical notation equates to D, E-flat, C, and B-natural.) This “autobiographical” Quartet was composed in only three days, July 12–14, 1960, while the composer was in Dresden supposedly working on the score for a World War II film entitled Five Days, Five Nights. The Quartet that occupied him instead was officially dedicated “to the memory of the victims of fascism and war,” but it masked an inner dedication—to the composer himself.

Shostakovich had just been coerced to join the Communist Party and he viewed his submission with self-loathing. His deep depression prompted the contemplation of his own mortality; one scholar and friend of Shostakovich suggested that the composer thought of the Eighth Quartet not only as autobiographical but at the time as his final work. He had in essence written his own Requiem. On July 19, 1960, Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman:

“I have been considering that when I die, scarcely anyone will write a work in my memory. Therefore I have decided to write one myself. Then on the cover they can print: ‘Dedicated to the author of this Quartet.’ The main theme of the Quartet is the notes D-S-C-H, my initials. The Quartet contains themes from my works and the revolutionary song ‘Zamuchon tyazholoy nevoley’ [Tormented by Heavy Captivity]. My themes are the following: from the First Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the [Second Piano] Trio, the [First] Cello Concerto and from Lady Macbeth. I have made allusions to Wagner (Funeral March from Götterdämmerung) and Tchaikovsky (second theme from the first movement of the Sixth Symphony). Oh yes, I forgot my Tenth Symphony. A nice mish-mash.”

His continuation described how much he had wept during and after the Quartet’s completion, but in terms of a pseudo-tragedy. Shostakovich was already able to distance himself enough from the emotional content to admire the form of the work as a whole. The Quartet consists of five movements played without pause, unified by the D-S-C-H motto. The motto also announces the various quotations throughout the work—first played by the cello then imitated by the other instruments, it introduces his first self-quotation, from the First Symphony.

The second movement provides contrast by means of speed, texture, and constant loud dynamics. After the prominent intoning of the motto by viola and cello, Shostakovich quotes what he calls “the Jewish theme” from his Second Piano Trio. The main theme of the third movement transforms the motto into a kind of grotesque waltz. Shostakovich quotes from his First Cello Concerto in one of the episodes, and the extension of this quotation becomes the first theme of the fourth movement. Music from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is quoted both in this and the fifth movement, but the most poignant quotation, again introduced by the motto, is the revolutionary funeral march for prisoners “Tormented by Heavy Captivity.”

The fifth movement, a recapitulation-reminiscence of the first movement, closes the work in the tragic mood that pervades the entire Quartet. Even without knowing the sources of the quotations or that Shostakovich was recalling works of special significance in his life, the listener is struck by the dark seriousness of the work and the soul-searching quality it conveys—a characteristic often associated with the late Beethoven quartets.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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